As those who claim to represent Jesus Christ today, we Christians need to get clear on our core message, then get on with proclaiming it to the world. This is true across the theological spectrum. Unfortunately, much that is offered as “gospel” today has little in common with the message announced by the apostles in obedience to Jesus. The confusion began quite early. John Chrysostom of Constantinople (A.D. 349-407) thought the apostolic message included “the glad tidings of the soul’s immortality.” However, the idea of an “immortal soul” that lives forever comes not from Jesus or his apostles but from Socrates and Plato. According to Genesis 2, God made man from dust of the earth (physical body), breathed into him breath of life (spirit, breath, wind), and man became a living soul or living being. Only God is immortal by his own nature (1 Tim. 6:16). We humans are not naturally immortal; we die unless God gives us life.
Contemporary with Chrysostom, “Saint Augustine” of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), was shaping the Western church. Burdened with a guilty conscience after an early life of sinful indulgence, Augustine viewed God and humankind in terms of cosmic criminal law. As a result, the Western church developed a legalistic culture with a core message that focused on our guilt, God’s wrath, and Christ’s appeasement. And always looming overhead was the ever-present threat of unending torment in hell. Meanwhile, Eastern Orthodox churches were centering attention on the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, but especially the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and his Ascension to God’s right hand. The chief motivation in Orthodox Christianity is God’s glory as seen in the Risen Christ, and the expectation of our sharing it, beginning now, and far more fully in the Age to come. This difference between East and West is seen in their respective aids to devotion, whether Western crucifix (punishment, suffering) or Eastern icon (reward, glory).
So what did the apostles proclaim? Not doctrine but a story. As reflected in Acts, apostles and other evangelists alike told the story of Jesus, often in the context of God’s larger salvation story. Jesus went about doing good, the story says, then he was killed by wicked men. But the story climaxes with the announcement that God raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 2:24; 3:15; 3:26; 4:10; 10:20; 13:30; 17:31). On that grand note the apostles declared “the full message of this life” (Acts 5:20). Many Jews heard only “weakness”; many Greeks sneered, “foolish talk!” But to all who believe, both then and now, this gospel sparkles with wisdom and resonates with power. In a world of mortal humans, where sin and death seem often to hold invincible sway, there is no better news imaginable. Through Jesus of Nazareth, God has overcome sin, defeated Death, and given us the promise of eternal life. Death is not invincible after all. Life will have the final word!
Edward Fudge – January 19, 2014
Edward Fudge is an author, theologian, thinker, scholar, teacher, preacher and most important to me, my dear friend. I invite you to visit him at EdwardFudge.com. You will find a wealth of great material helpful to any serious follower of Jesus.